WE HAVE a confession to make. Many years ago - when we had
begun to read biologist-philosophers and others in the hope of
discovering whether Matter is the only reality, we soon met
the word "teleology". We met it frequently and we did not
know what it meant.
Our ignorance was a handicap. For it seemed that teleology
had an important bearing on the question we were studying.
Lamarck was a teleologist and Darwin was not one, we read
somewhere; and also that Darwin by abolishing all teleological considerations from biological studies had placed this
science on a sure materialistic foundation. One of the objections advanced by materialists against religion seemed, moreover, to be its teleological implications. In Hogben we met
slighting reference to "the consistent teleologist". Biologists
who prided themselves on their scientific outlook told us
that, of course, they were not teleologists. Teleology and
materialism, we gathered, were mutually incompatible. It
was clearly necessary that we should seek to understand what
We have made the effort, but we are still not clear as to
what the word means to those who introduce it into philosophical arguments. A dictionary definition is: "The doctrine of final causes." But this does not help us. Those who repudiate teleology so indignantly certainly do not repudiate belief
in causality. They insist on it. Nor do they seem to repudiate
belief in any causes which might be called final.
Rather did it seem to us that teleology was taken as the
belief that things serve a purpose. But this definition raises the
question: "What things and what purpose?" Is a person a
teleologist if he believes that some things serve a purpose and
others do not?
If so we are all teleologists. For we know that the things
which we ourselves make and do serve a purpose. We build
a house in order to live in it; we purchase a railway ticket in
order to reach a distant place; the purpose of the governor of
a steam engine is to maintain constant speed. A human action
to which we cannot ascribe a purpose is rare. We call it
meaningless, proving that meaning and purpose are often
given the same significance. Clearly, those who repudiate
teleology cannot mean that nothing ever serves a purpose.
Nor can they possibly mean that there is purpose only in the
things done by homo sapiens, and not in anything else. Few
biologists would accord to man so unique a position in the
scheme of things. Most of them have no doubt that the things
done by all living substance serve a purpose. They say that
the labyrinthine organ serves the purpose of enabling creatures
to maintain their balance. They tell us the purpose of the
roots and leaves of plants, of the gills of fish, of the endocrine
glands, of the opaque dilatable iris which protects the retina
of the eye, of the bright colours of flowers. They tell us why
creatures secrete saliva at the prospect of food; why they have
hair, scales or feathers; why nerves are electric conductors and
bones are hollow.
For the above examples we have written down the first
things about the organic world which came into our head.
We could instead have opened any text-book on a biological
subject at random and would have found on every page an
example as good or better. Let a man glance at his hand and
he will call to mind a dozen instances at least of the way living
substance is put together so that a purpose may be served. The
purposes to which the whole hand may be put are in themselves legion. Without this organ man could never have
become a tool-using animal. The skin keeps the blood in and
infectious germs out. It is puckered so that it may not become
unduly stretched as the fingers close on each other. Its surface is covered with pores with the object of regulating the temperature of the body and eliminating waste products. The
skin is provided with nerve endings, and these are most numerous where they can be most useful, namely at the finger tips.
The thumb is opposed to the fingers so as to enable the hand
to grasp things easily. The finger tips are protected by nails
which grow forward from the base in the way which causes
the most effective replacement of worn surface. We might go
on to describe the purposeful design of the joints, the way
blood vessels and capillaries are arranged with the object of
bringing a blood supply to every part where it is needed, to
the disposition of muscles where they may be most useful.
A whole book could be written on the hand alone in which
each paragraph brought some new reference to purpose. We
were obliged to conclude that those who repudiate teleology
do believe in the reality of purpose.
Our search for clarity continued. We put our difficulty to a
biologist friend. He told us that it is teleology to say that a
creature has a labyrinthine organ because of its need to maintain its balance, but that it is not teleology to say that it maintains its balance because it possesses a labyrinthine organ. This
did not seem to change the fact that this organ serves a purpose. It is quite true that a creature lacking this device would
fall over. And it is also true that, if it lacked any other necessary feature observed by biologists it would be hke the bread-
and-butter fly in Alice which could never obtain its proper
food. It would always die. When pressed our friend said
that this would not happen. The creature would possess other
features instead, of equal survival value, serving different but
equally useful purposes. It became obvious to us that, whether
they call themselves teleologists or not, biologists do beheve
in a principle or law which requires that most if not all organic
features shall serve a purpose.
It is true that some biologist-philosophers, such as Hogben,
have declared their belief that someone will someday, somehow find means of abolishing the concept "purpose" from biological work altogether. But it is impossible to take such a
belief seriously. Those whose enthusiasm for materialism
leads them to such lengths of prophecy must invoke faith and
hope, if not charity. They call upon science in vain. For
when they think as scientists and not as philosophers they know
that it is as impossible to explain the working of a living organ
properly without mentioning its purpose as it is to explain
the working of the governor of a steam engine without doing
so. Behaviourists may avoid the word, but only by leaving
out things which everyone knows to be true and significant.
If a biologist does not know what the purpose of a distinctive
piece of structure or behaviour is, he considers his understanding incomplete. He does not rest until a purpose has been
discovered. And his confidence is but rarely misplaced. Only
a few parts of the body appear to serve no purpose at all.
Some are the vestigial remains of a past age and did serve a
purpose in earlier generations, if Bradley is right there may
also be a few which have never done so. For he says on page
166 of Patterns of Survival: "Certain long lines of fossil shell-
fish show progressive development of characters which could
have no imaginable survival value. Others show positively
lethal trends." But even Bradley would not say that nothing
has a survival value.
We are, therefore, convinced that most of those who deny
that they are teleologists do not deny teleology because they,
like Hogben, hope it may prove incompatible with a visionary
and speculative scientific future. They mean that teleology is
incompatible with the science of today. So the word must
mean to them something different from behef in the reality
Perhaps teleology means for them belief in purpose coupled
with intention. This might explain why Lamarck is said to
have been more teleological than Darwin. Lamarck thought,
to give the most frequently quoted illustration, that short-necked ancestors of existing giraffes had an urge to eat twigs
too high to be within their reach. As a result of this urge,
according to Lamarck, successive generations of giraffes
developed longer and longer necks, necks ever better suited to
the purpose of obtaining the food most appropriate to the
animals' digestion. Darwin, on the other hand, attributed the
giraffe's long neck to the well-known principle of survival of
Thus Lamarck introduced a certain amount of psychology
into his evolutionary theory. He believed in purpose coupled
with intention. Darwin proved that this was unnecessary. He
believed in purpose only. He attributed no more to the giraffe's
long neck than an engineer would to the governor of a steam
engine. No one would suggest that it was the intention of
this device to maintain constant speed. But we all know that
this is its purpose.
Perhaps, on the other hand, those who repudiate teleology,
consider that the word implies belief in a universal purpose
only, or perhaps, belief in a good purpose.
A person is said to be a teleologist when he speaks of the
wonderful economy of nature by which a balance is maintained between all things; when he declares that plants and
animals are so distributed as to provide food for each other,
so that none may become too predominant; when he tells us
that carbon-dioxide released in the breath of animals is maintained in our atmosphere in just that concentration necessary
for the existence of green-leaved plants. By this use of the
word, a person is a teleologist if he beheves that the purpose
of lungs is to provide carbon-dioxide for plants in general,
but he is not a teleologist if he beheves that the purpose of lungs
is to provide oxygen for their owner.
In the wider sense of the word, Darwin was certainly no
teleologist, and neither for that matter was Lamarck. Most
biologists agree that the purposes served by the things they
find in the organic world are self-preservation and race-preservation, but that, with a few exceptions, it is not the purpose of one individual to be useful to other individuals. It is
not even possible to say whether the purposes with which
biology is concerned are good or bad.
The answer depends literally on the point of view. Were
the cat able to think the matter out, it would reach the conclusion that its sharp claws serve an excellent purpose. But the mouse would not agree. It would consider this purpose a very
bad one. So it is throughout the world of living things.
Each individual might be called a "teleological unit" in which
every detail aims at the continuance of the life of that individual and its race. But the purpose of the structure and behaviour of one individual is often in conflict with the purpose of the structure and behaviour of other individuals. The teleology with which biologists are concerned is strictly
When we look for a generalized teleology, for a common
purpose pervading the whole of the organic world, we seek
in vain. It is impossible to define any purpose aimed at by the
fact that cats eat mice and mice eat grain. Study of plants and
animals obliges us to believe in a teleology for each individual,
but it does not provide any evidence for a co-ordinating purpose common to all life. We will agree that we are justified
in attributing to the organic world only the hmited sort of
teleology which we must also attribute to the world of
machinery, no more and no less. In short, any conclusions
which we draw are to be based only on the facts which we
have learnt from biologists.
There are quite enough of these to present materialism with
an insuperable difficulty. For anything which serves a purpose
is thereby doubly determinate. Besides conforming to the laws
of physics and chemistry it must also meet this added requirement.
Did Darwin prove that there is no such added requirement?
Not in the least. He knew full well that there is. Of course
we know since Darwin's day more than we did before about
the events which have led to such features as long necks and
labyrinthine organs, though we do not yet know as much
about these as we do about the events which have led to the
governor of a steam engine. But our knowledge does not
prove that these features are useless. Whether or not Darwin
abolished teleology he certainly did not abolish behef in purpose. To explain a thing is not the same as to explain it away.
How the reality of purpose proves double determinateness
is most easily appreciated in instances where it is most fully
understood, namely in the world of machinery.
It is not enough that the structure and behaviour of a piece
of machinery conform to the laws of physics and chemistry.
This is already done by the engineer's raw materials. There are
unlimited ways in which bits of wood and iron and copper
could be put together were conformity to physical laws the
only restriction imposed on them. But in addition every
detail of the finished machine must serve a purpose. This is
true although the purpose is certainly not a cosmic one, and
it is true whether the purpose be good or bad. A machine is
doubly determinate whether it be designed for man's service
or his destruction.
Similarly we learn from text-books on biology that it is not
enough for atoms of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen
to be put together in any way which may conform to the laws
of physics and chemistry. Among all the possible ways which
would meet this first requirement only those are permitted in
the organic world which also meet the second requirement.
If this does not happen the result is not even remotely like an
organism, not even as much like one as the above-mentioned
bread-and-butter fly in Alice.
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